Migrant women in Canada: Indirect effects of the COVID-19 response

This International Migrants Day, Stefanie Machado and Julia Smith – of the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity and Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University – explore how measures to tackle COVID-19 have impacted migrant women in Canada.

While only a minority of Canadians have experienced COVID-19 transmission, we are all experiencing the response in terms of physical distancing measures, interruptions in education and social services, and economic uncertainty. How and to what degree we experience these shifts is determined by intersecting social, economic and identity factors. On International Migrants Day, we consider the specific experiences of migrant women, drawing on preliminary findings from two research projects being conducted in British Columbia.

From August-October 2020, the IRIS Project spoke to 18 migrant women about how COVID-19 had affected their access to healthcare. Women shared various challenges reaching and utilizing virtual healthcare services during the pandemic, including limited access to technology and childcare support, and language barriers.

Where in-person healthcare was needed, women experienced challenges related to taking public transportation while pregnant, attending health services alone, or bringing children to appointments. One woman described her experience navigating COVID-19 safety protocols in a hospital soon after delivering a baby:

We asked if a friend could please come so I wouldn’t be left alone. They said ‘no, if it’s not your husband then you have to be alone’. It was really difficult that we could not get permission [for someone] to stay with me after. So the next day we left the hospital, my husband went to work, and I was alone.

Shifts in health service delivery, where doctors were not accepting new patients, walk-in clinics were temporarily closed, and in-person services were cancelled, led to healthcare access delays, unmet health needs, and the need to travel long distances to access language-specific care:

Here, there are barely any doctors who speak Spanish, and that [doctor] is the only one I have been able to get. She has seen me through video call. She did ask me to go see her in-person because they opened a walk-in clinic, but it is very far… I have to take the train, the bus, I have to take the children, it has been complicated for me.

In times of need, migrant women described the work of community-based organizations, including immigrant-specific programs and clinics and foodbanks, as critical forms of support for food, social connection, clinic referrals and language-specific COVID-19 information:

If it weren’t thanks to other [community-based] groups that translate the information, thanks to them we can be more attentive about how many cases there are. But because of the government? Well, no honestly. Everything is in English or French.

Migrant women and their partners lost jobs, work permits, and experienced significant delays in immigration processes. This led women and their families to lose both their immigration status and health insurance. Migrant women described experiencing severe financial and mental health challenges as a result, and being forced to pay out-of-pocket for needed healthcare services or avoid healthcare altogether.

Looking beyond health effects, the Gender and COVID-19 Project spoke to migrant women about the social and economic effects of the COVID-19 response. The eight women interviewed in May and June of 2020 all spoke of struggling to manage without childcare and schools. While this was a common challenge of parents at the time, migrant mothers particularly worried about their ability to support their children in online learning, considering their own language barriers and unfamiliarity with the Canadian education system. One mother explained:

His teacher sent the homework and I should study first by myself and then explain to my son ‘you should do this, you should do that’ and was really different for me. That was a big headache for me because it’s so hard . . . You know if you were good in English your problem is less, but I wasn’t.

Lack of access to other services, such as libraries, created additional barriers to education for children, which in turn caused economic stress and feelings of guilt for mothers:

My daughter ask me I want to have – I want to order this book, this book, this book if she find it online and I explain for her I couldn’t pay lots of money for book, for buying book . . .  And before COVID we borrow at library.

Concurrently, mothers’ education efforts were interrupted:

I was applying for health in BCIT. I wanted to take my English 12 because I wanted to take a program. But right now BCIT is not working, any college is not working because of COVID-19.

English classes were canceled and then, in some cases, moved online. However, mothers found it hard to participate online with children at home.

COVID-19 related anxiety and stress was exacerbated by the lack of local family and social networks to help ease COVID-19 related care burdens, and fear for their children if they were to become sick. One mother explained she had given up her job as an essential worker because of fear of infection:

My fear was if I get sick, who’s going to take care of my son. There is no one else.

Recommendations from migrant women

The women interviewed within both the IRIS and the Gender and COVID-19 Project presented numerous ideas on how to mitigate the negative consequences of the COVID-19 response. These included:

  • Including all migrants in government social protection schemes during COVID-19 and beyond, including those with precarious immigration status and without documentation
  • Implementing tailored, accessible, and needs-specific health and social services that are both culturally and linguistically appropriate
  • Safely distributing essential items, including educational materials like technology and books, at central locations like schools and libraries
  • Additional support for online learning for migrant families
  • Flexible and affordable childcare
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